A Longing for God
Not long ago I got a long email from a friend who wrote of “a minor crisis of faith,” and asked for my thoughts.
Sacred music is a big part of his life and faith. Missing church one Sunday because of illness he had listened to an especially beautiful piece of music. While it moved him into God’s presence, the experience also left him with a feeling of sadness. Here’s a bit of what he wrote to me:
“I began to feel wistful and even sad, aware that [my] church while attractive to me in certain ways,
does not fill some of my deepest needs, and I’m not quite sure what to do about that – hence this email to you.
“Missing for me is a sense of being connected to the holy, the mysterium tremendum. We are focused much more on the horizontal than the vertical dimensions of life. Of course we need both, but church is the one place I expect to be connected to the transcendent.”
This friend is not the only one to express such a concern to me about their church. I also find it to be shared by people who have a sense of something missing or “off,” but who don’t quite have the words to say what “it” is.
What’s going on?
My friend’s contrast of the horizontal (human to human) and vertical (human to God) is one way to put it. The cross of Christ combines those two dimensions.
Another way to describe what has shifted in many liberal or progressive churches is that the focus is more sociological than theological. The goal, the point, is to be a certain kind of human community — inclusive, justice-oriented, open, diverse, authentic. God, Jesus, may be invoked, or not, in support of that aspiration but God is not the focus. Worship becomes less being in God’s holy presence than being in one another’s presence as a community of goodness and love.
What could be wrong with that?
Well, when we put the emphasis on ourselves and the special nature of our community, we seldom live up to our claim or billing. We remain, despite our best intentions, people who hurt, disappoint, and betray one another. In our hope to be a community of saints, we forget that we are also a community of sinners.
The other side of the coin is that with such an emphasis on us and our ideals, we miss a sense of the God who comes to us precisely in our failures and our disappointments. Christianity is not, as I’ve written many times, about our efforts to do or be good or perfect in order to gain God’s love or approval. Nor is it about our effort to show we are the one’s who are on God’s side. It is about the One, Jesus Christ, who has taken our side and promises never to leave it. The arrow, so to speak, flies less from us to God, more from God to us. Our lives are a response to the One who loved us first (and last).
If you lose or abandon a focus on this God, and on what God has done and is doing, and on all of life as lived before and unto God, you’re left with yourselves and your ideals. You are left trying very hard to be very, very good, just, open and inclusive. It’s not good news. It’s an add to already burdened lives. Ironically, it invites a certain inauthenticity as we pretend to be nicer or better than we are.
There’s a story about an old priest who visited the empty sanctuary of a church he had served many years before. A huge banner proclaimed, “GOD IS OTHER PEOPLE.” From somewhere the priest found a marker and went to the banner. There he added a large comma after OTHER. The banner now read, “GOD IS OTHER , PEOPLE.”
There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be, in Martin Luther King’s words, a “beloved community.” By all means, do so. But being that requires God’s grace towards each and all of us, which we then in our inevitably imperfect ways seek to extend to others.
I can’t think of anything, really, more dangerous to the church than a loss of a sense of the transcendent, of the awesome, and of devotion and surrender before the Holy One, beyond human comprehension.
I conclude with these words of astonished praise from Paul in his Letter to the Church at Rome:
“O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?’ For from him, and through him and to him are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11: 33 – 36)